In Brief

AI Technology Helped Researchers Discover 143 Ancient Geoglyphs

Dated from the pre-Incan Nazca culture around 100 BCE, they span up to 328 feet and depict a variety of animals including birds, fish, snakes, foxes, and felines.

A geoglyph discovered with artificial intelligence technology  (all images courtesy of Yamagata University)

Archaeologists in Yamagata, Japan said they have discovered a cluster of enormous, ancient geoglyphs in Southern Peru. The discovery was made with the help of cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

A research group at Yamagata University identified 143 new geoglyphs etched into the desert terrains of Nazca in southern Peru. The giant land art pieces, known as the Nazca Lines, depict human-like figures and a variety of animals including birds, fish, snakes, foxes, felines, and camelids. Their size ranges between 5 to 328 feet. Many can only be identified from the air due to their large size. The geoglyphs are dated from 100 BCE to 300 CE.

The researchers detected 142 of the 143 geoglyphs through their fieldwork and by analyzing high-resolution 3D satellite imagery. They then used IBM Power Systems servers and AI to identify one more geoglyph.

The geoglyph discovered using IBM Watson Machine Learning Community Edition

The geoglyphs are believed to have been designed by people of the pre-Incan Nazca culture, which started around 100 BCE. In 1994, Pampa de Nazca, where most of the geoglyphs are located, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Archaeologists and anthropologists are still debating the purpose of these large carvings. Some theories proposed that they were supposed to be seen by deities in the sky, while others say they were an astronomical calendar or representation of an irrigation scheme. There are also those who believe that the area was an alien landing strip. But as Hyperallergic writer Sarah Bond explains, this pseudoarchaeology is racist, as it questions the ability of ancient non-European people to have accomplished impressive architectural feats.

“All of these figures were created by removing the black stones that cover the land, thereby exposing the white sand beneath,” writes the research team in their study’s summary.

A geoglyph depicting a two-headed snake and humans
Fish geoglyph
Bird geoglyph

The Nazca Lines were first discovered in 1927 when Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe spotted them while he was hiking through the foothills. In the 1930s as air traffic in the area increased, the lines became a tourist attraction. The geoglyphs survived the centuries by virtue of the area’s dry climate.

The research study into the 143 previously unknown Nazca geoglyphs started in 2004, while the group started to use AI in 2018. The team of researchers, led by the anthropologist Masato Sakai, divided the geoglyphs into two types. Type A geoglyphs, which are larger in scale and can span more than 165 feet, were likely created in the Early Nazca period between 100 and CE 300. Shaped like animals, they are believed to have delineated ritual sites where people held ceremonies such as the destruction of pottery vessels.

Type B geoglyphs are less than 165 feet in size and were created during the Initial Nazca period from 100 BCE to CE 100. These biomorphic shapes, like the one identified by AI, were produced “beside paths or on sloping inclines and are thought to have been used as wayposts when traveling,” the researchers say. “Type A geoglyphs were created as locations for practicing rituals, and type B geoglyphs were designed to be looked at,” they determine. 

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